One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.
Indeed, Hitch’s view take was “I know all this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional”. Psycho cost less than a million and grossed $50m, and in the US was only beaten that year by the mega-bucks Spartacus. It also fundamentally changed the horror genre. Without Psycho, no slashers, no giallo, no Leatherface. Not all of those are things to celebrate (if any), but they evidence that Hitchcock had struck a mother lode. The difference was that while he delivered the highest carat, undiscerning audiences would be content with any old pale imitation in a coat of gold (or red) paint.
Psycho has gone down as the most famous of his movies, even if it is relatively atypical in tapping as strongly as it does into horror elements. Nevertheless, it was clearly one of his proudest achievements. Perhaps unsurprising, since the razzle and dazze here was arguably a spotlight for his prowess at its most refined: no mega-star support from Cary Grant or James Stewart. No gargantuan budget (unlike his previous hit): “It was an experiment in this sense: Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show?” Hitchcock felt justly rewarded for eliciting a fundamental response from his viewers, a visceral and overwhelming one: “My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on audiences, and I consider that very important… I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion… It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.”
He’d try the same thing again, that kind of “pure film” horror with The Birds, and very nearly pulled it off (it cost a lot more and wasn’t as well cast, but on its own terms, it’s still one of his great late-period achievements). Psycho, though, continues to impress in all sorts of ways, beyond simply that justifiably famous shower scene. Hitch insisted that was the principal attraction – “the suddenness of the murder in the show, coming, as it were, out of the blue” – and he “executes” it with maximum precision; while he and Truffaut discussed how violent the sequence is, the montage effect means you think it’s much worse than it is (the second murder is more explicit). And so celebrated is it, it’s probably inevitable that, like Citizen Kane and Mank – even more so in first drafts, David Fincher’s dad guided by Pauline Kael’s take – there’s an authorship issue that has been discredited. Namely, the notion that Saul Bass directed the scene.
The opening fifty minutes – it’s easy to forget we’re with Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane for almost half the movie – are completely engrossing, even before Norman takes centre stage and becomes one of cinema’s most celebrated and iconic villains. And that’s beyond the daring depiction of her affair with Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and her expressive bra. Marion’s spur-of-the-moment decision to steal $40,000 – about $350,000 today – and the resulting paranoia may be an extended red herring, but it’s totally gripping fodder of the sort Hitchcock thrived on. Particularly the nosey traffic policeman. He’s your classic imperious mirror-shades cop, and when she asks him if she looks as if she’s done something wrong and he replies “Frankly, yes”, you wish she could be a bit more together about her guilt.
Of course, this sympathy with the criminal will later be repeated with a far more culpable figure. When Marion stops off at the Bates Motel, the most immediately striking aspect of her interaction with Norman is that he is just a boy and she, despite the stricken anxiety we have witnessed, is a mature woman. Crucially, Marion leaves us as just she has decided to face the music for her impulsive action in Phoenix. She’s never able to atone. Superb as Leigh is during the opening section of the picture, probably most impressive is her ability to hold that unblinking stare in the final pull back from her crumpled form.
Perkins is also very good, but it’s also the case that the nervy, gangly, sexually anxious Norman isn’t a million miles from the actor’s own persona. Joseph Stefano talks about how this changed the character from the novel’s overweight, middle-aged slob, but most apposite is the sympathy Perkins’ bashful insecurity provokes. Look at Vince Vaughn in the irrelevant remake – or better still, don’t – for how significant that is (not that Gus van Sant was doing Vaughn’s Norman any favours, deciding what that peep hole scene really needed was some furious masturbation).
I can’t even remember if I knew about Psycho’s twists before I first saw it – that of Marion’s early exit and Mrs Bates true identity – but it certainly must be almost impossible to see the picture now without knowing. What’s interesting is that, unlike say a M Night Shyamalan movie, neither remotely impact the value of a repeat visit and in some respects even reward one. Norman’s responses are revealed as carefully gauged in his defence of his alter ego (“A son is a poor substitute for a lover”; “People always call a mad house ‘some place’, don’t they?”)
Once Norman takes over as protagonist (or antagonist-protagonist), you are with him as you were with Marion when it comes to the tension of his possible discovery. The superb sinking-then-not-then-sinking evidence of the car in the swamp. The very pushy Arbogast (Martin Balsam) tripping him up in his story and Norman’s stammering response. And then, the alpha-male appearance of Loomis, the hunk lunk striking the pose of the school bully to poor Norman (it’s interesting how little sympathy is reserved for the classic hero figure here, even if Loomis eventually saves Vera Miles’ Lila).
I’m not as impressed by some of the contributing detail as others: the taxidermy hobby that explains Norman’s preservation of mom, and Hitchcock fixing on his neck and his birdlike craning. Regardless, Perkins may be following in the lineage of previous well-drawn Hitch psychopaths in Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train, but his is easily the most sympathetic.
In some respects, I’ve always found Arbogast’s murder even more impressive than Marion’s. There’s something especially off-balance about it; the space is disorientating in its sheer openness, the attacker rushing into frame, in stark contrast to the claustrophobia of Marion’s demise. It’s also remarkable because Hitch is effectively pulling the same move twice – killing a protagonist – and effortlessly succeeding. When that leaves sorting things out to Sam and Lila, the same character spark arguably isn’t there, but the tension nevertheless remains well sustained. And if Miles isn’t given the most interesting of roles – she had signed a five-year contract with Hitch at the time of The Wrong Man, but had already fallen out of favour for ruining his Vertigo plans – she makes the most of it with Lila’s dogged determination, practically dragging Sam along for the ride.
Also worth mentioning is Patricia Hitchcock’s cameo (“I guess he must have seen my wedding ring”), Bernard Hermann’s superb score – again, massively influential on the future of movies – and Bass’ titles. There’s also, of course, the five-minute coda over-explaining Norman’s malaise. It’s quite amusing in its cod-psychology, and Brian De Palma would later pay homage in his Psycho-redress Dressed to Kill. But if it can seem a little overcooked, it entirely makes sense that Hitch would recognise the need to let the viewer come down from all that tension, rather than cut swiftly to the credits in the manner he generally preferred.
There’s no way you could call Psycho elegant or finessed, but it’s as masterful and surprising as they come. The only shame is that this promised a veteran director with a new lease of life and intent as he began his seventh decade. Instead, he quickly bordered on the obsolete, as a new generation and style – an attitude Psycho partly instigated – eclipsed him.